Manatee May Lose Endangered Status in Florida

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
February 26, 2003
In 1999, Florida adopted new standards for listing endangered and threatened species. State officials are reevaluating the status of the endangered manatee, Florida's state marine mammal, based on these new criteria.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the state agency overseeing management of protected species, will vote on changing the manatee's endangered status at the state level later this year. The agency postponed a manatee decision originally scheduled for January 2003. Depending on the vote outcome, Florida's manatees may get a new classification: threatened species. Threatened status is one rung lower than endangered status in species ranking.

Currently, both the state of Florida and the U.S. federal government classify the manatee as endangered. The federal government's endangered classification dates back to 1967.

Because the manatee's status will be evaluated using the new standards, a change in status doesn't necessarily mean that the species is doing better, said Elsa Haubold, research administrator of the manatee research program at Florida Marine Research Institute (FMRI), the scientific arm of the FWC. "But we do feel that the population has improved in the last two decades," she said.

The manatee population was decimated by centuries of extensive hunting. State and federal laws now protect the manatee, but continuing problems such as habitat loss and watercraft collisions threaten the shy marine mammal.

Right now, protections ranging from watercraft speed limits to restricted boating areas attempt to prevent boats and manatees from colliding. The same protections will still apply to manatees if the FWC opts to downgrade the species' status from endangered, Haubold said.

Some have voiced concern about the planned vote to downgrade the marine mammal's status from "endangered" to "threatened." James Powell, director for aquatic conservation at the Wildlife Trust in Sarasota, Florida, said the step might create a false public perception that the manatee is doing well, and could result in less protection in the future.

"The real world state of manatees hasn't changed," said Powell, a biologist who has studied manatees for more than three decades.

The Other Floridians

When Christopher Columbus and his crew spotted manatees in Caribbean waters, the sailors thought they had come upon the mermaids of sea legends. These mermaids, known as the West Indian manatee, range from the southern United States, through the Caribbean and down to northern coast of South America.

Florida has its own subspecies of this marine mammal, which cruises coasts, salt bays, shallow rivers, and canals in search of aquatic plants to devour. Adult manatees weigh in at around 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms), and can eat 10 to 15 percent of their body weight each day.

Patti Thompson, director of science and conservation at Save the Manatee Club in Maitland, said the iconic mammals so closely associated with Florida reflect the state's personality. "They're very laid-back. They act like Floridians," she said.

In the most recent statewide manatee count, which took place in late January 2003, observers spotted 3,113 manatees—the second highest count since 1991.

Manatees swim Florida's warm waters year round and are extremely sensitive to the cold, said Haubold, a marine biologist. When water temperatures drops below 68° Fahrenheit (20° Celsius) for an extended period of time, manatees start to suffer from cold stress. Wart-like bumps appear on their faces, and they suffer from a frostbite-like freezing of their skin. If they remain in this chilled state for too long, they die.

To avoid potentially-fatal waters, manatees (or sea cows as they are sometimes called) seek warmer spots. They are attracted to the warm water springs along the Florida coast where temperatures range from 68° to 72° Fahrenheit (20° to 21.1° Celsius). In addition, some power plants discharge warm water into inland channels, creating more temperate oases for manatees.

The search for warm water has brought manatees into contact with increasing numbers of recreational boaters. In 2002, FMRI tallied 95 manatee deaths caused by watercraft collisions, a record high.

Run-ins with boats can kill manatees on impact and boat propellers can inflict deep, sometimes fatal wounds. The manatee's relatively slow speed, about three to five miles per hour (4.8 to 8 kilometers per hour), makes it tough to escape speeding boats. Even at their fastest, manatees only move at 20 miles per hour (32 kilometers per hour). Many power boats are capable of speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour).

During the past few decades, Florida created protected areas for the manatee, some off-limits to boaters. Other areas display speed limits to protect the slow-moving manatees.

"We have protected zones throughout the state," said Kipp Frohlich, biological administrator for FWC. These protected areas appear in 26 Florida counties, with nearly 300,000 acres of manatee protection zones, covering 24 percent of the state's coastal and inland waters.

"One way we know we can affect the manatee population is to slow boats down in manatee areas," said Thompson of the Save the Manatee Club. While these zones can be difficult to enforce, Thompson said, "the vast majority of Florida's boaters care about manatees and will do whatever it takes to protect them."

Manatee Protection: Past and Present

Long before the Endangered Species Act of 1973, Florida took steps to protect manatees. In 1893, manatee hunting was declared illegal, but poaching was still a problem during the lean times of the Depression and World War II.

In the 1960s, Daniel Hartman of Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, conducted the first in-depth study of manatees in the wild, leading to a National Geographic article and the first of several Jacques Cousteau documentaries, which shared the sea cow with the world.

With the Endangered Species Act of 1973, federal and state officials began working together to enforce stronger manatee protections. Along with creating protected zones and sanctuaries, the state reviews development plans that could affect manatee habitat and monitors the species and their environment.

Over the years, Florida's standards seem to have balanced, to some degree, threats against manatees, Powell said.

"But the future is not particularly rosy," he said. "It's kind of like looking at your mutual funds—past performance is no guarantee of future performance."

And the manatees have been subject to a push-and-pull between boating groups and conservationists. The Coastal Conservation Association Florida, a nonprofit group which supports marine resource protection and saltwater anglers, is concerned that too-stringent protection for manatees could further limit recreational fishing.

Ted Forsgren, executive director of Coastal Conservation Association Florida, said in a press release that the steady increase in manatee mortality fits with rising population counts for the manatee.

At the same time, a coalition of groups including Save the Manatee Club is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to increase federal protection for manatees.

At the state level, FMRI researchers with the help of three out-of-state marine biologists compiled a report on the biological status of the manatees released in December 2002. By making projections from what's currently known about Florida's manatees—a process which FMRI spokesperson Allison McDonald compared to how meteorologists use models to create a weather forecast—scientists determined that under some conditions, the manatee population could decline by 50 percent in the next 45 years. Under the new state guidelines, this would rank the manatee under "threatened."

Right before the commission vote in January, FWC recommended that the manatee decision be delayed. FWC executive director Kenneth Haddad said in a press release that postponing the vote would give those on both sides of the manatee debate a chance to gather more evidence to make their case for the manatee's status. And the commissioners agreed, forestalling a decision until November.

More time—and more scientific evidence—is what Wildlife Trust's Powell has been pushing for. "The manatees are not going to disappear from the Earth tomorrow," he said. "We have time to do it right, so neither boaters nor conservationists can have strong arguments about the results."

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